Michael Jordan, the Bobcats, and Running the Lottery Treadmill

(Photo: Steve Johnson)

The Charlotte Bobcats came into existence in 2004.  At the conclusion of the next five seasons, the Bobcats finished out of the playoffs and hence earned a trip to the NBA’s lottery.  

After all of these lottery picks, the Bobcats finally made the playoffs in 2010.  That Bobcat team – the best in franchise history – only won 44 games and failed to win a playoff game.  Nevertheless, this squad was the highlight in the brief history of this team. 

Two short years after this epic campaign (epic by Bobcat standards), Charlotte has posted the worst season in franchise history.  In fact, with a winning percentage of only 0.106, the 2011-12 Bobcats were the worst team in NBA history.

If we look at what happened to Charlotte’s roster, it is easy to see why this team became so bad so quickly.  Back in 2009-10 the Bobcats were led by the following players (Wins Produced numbers taken from theNBAGeek.com, explanation of Wins Produced offered here): Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Nazr Mohammed, and Tyson Chandler.   

Two issues we should note about the Bobcats in 2009-10:

  1. Only one of these players – Raymond Felton – was a lottery pick selected by the Bobcats.
  2. These six players produced 41.7 of the team’s wins in 2009-10.  In sum, the “epic” Bobcats were really about these six players (this is common in the NBA where most wins are produced by a minority of the players employed).

Rather than build upon the meager success of these six players, Michael Jordan – who began calling the shots in Charlotte in June of 2006 (and is now the owner) – decided that one year without a lottery selection was enough.  And to get back to the lottery, these six players were sent elsewhere. And in return, the Bobcats received the following players (transaction details here): Matt Carroll, Erick Dampier, Eduardo Najera, Dante Cunningham, Sean Marks, Joel Przybilla, Morris Peterson, D.J. White, Corey Maggette and Bismack Biyombo.

In 2011-12, Dampier, Cunningham, Marks, Przybilla, and Peterson didn’t produce any wins for the Bobcats because all five players had left the team (and in return, the Bobcats apparently received nothing).  And the players who stayed didn’t offer much more.  Biyombo, White, Najera, Carroll, and Maggette played more than 4,000 minutes for the Bobcats but combined to produce less than two wins.

Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler — an above-average player through most of his career — led the Knicks with 13.3 wins in 2011-12 (after producing 11.5 wins for the World Champion Dallas Mavericks the year before).  And Gerald Wallace produced 7.4 wins for both the Nets and Blazers.  Had the Bobcats simply kept these two players (two players the team did not find in the NBA lottery) – and found a collection of players who could produce just 15 more wins  – the Bobcats could have avoided the lottery in 2012 entirely. Certainly with Chandler and Wallace the Bobcats wouldn’t have been the worst team in NBA history.

Unfortunately, the Bobcats chose to take another path.  And the operative word is “chose.”  The Bobcats intended to get bad so that they could be good.  Or at least, that’s the story they tell.  

Losing now to win later – or tanking – is simply not a good strategy.  In general –- as I noted in this forum in March — title contenders in the NBA tend to arise from teams like the Bobcats in 2009-10.  Very awful teams – like the Bobcats in 2011-12 – tend not to become good very quickly. 

What tends to happen to awful teams is that they take a ride on the lottery treadmill.  This ride works as follows:

  • Team takes a player in the lottery.
  • As economic research indicates (research detailed in Stumbling on Wins), high draft picks tend to get more minutes than their productivity justifies. In addition, rookies tend to be below-average NBA players.
  • Giving extended minutes to a below-average player makes it likely a team will end up back in the lottery again.
  • With the lottery pick the next year, the team selects another player who – as a rookie – gets more minutes than his below-average production indicates.
  • And giving that player more minutes increases the odds the team will once again be back in the lottery. 

And so it goes. 

The following table gives one a sense of how frequently teams find themselves on the lottery treadmill.  Since the lottery was instituted in 1984, the following teams have found themselves out of the playoffs – and hence in the lottery – for five or more consecutive seasons. 

Team

Beginning Year

Ending Year

Lottery Treadmill Run

Atlanta

1999-2000

2006-2007

8

Boston

1995-1996

2000-2001

6

Charlotte Bobcats

2004-2005

2008-2009

5

Chicago

1998-1999

2003-2004

6

Cleveland

1998-1999

2004-2005

7

Dallas

1990-1991

1999-2000

10

Denver

1995-1996

2002-2003

8

Golden State

1994-1995

2005-2006

12

Golden State

2007-2008

2011-2012

5

Sacramento

1986-1987

1994-1995

9

Sacramento

2006-2007

2011-2012

6

LA Clippers

1997-1998

2004-2005

8

LA Clippers

1984-1985

1990-1991

7

LA Clippers

2006-2007

2010-2011

5

Milwaukee

1991-1992

1997-1998

7

Minnesota

2004-2005

2011-2012

8

Minnesota

1989-1990

1995-1996

7

New Jersey

1986-1987

1990-1991

5

New York

2004-2005

2009-2010

6

Philadelphia

1991-1992

1997-1998

7

Portland

2003-2004

2007-2008

5

Vancouver-Memphis

1995-1996

2002-2003

8

Washington

1988-1989

1995-1996

8

Washington

1997-1998

2003-2004

7

The above list includes 18 of the NBA’s 30 teams.  So this seems to happen to quite a few teams (and one of the missing teams – the Toronto Raptors — had three runs of four years).  Five teams – Golden State, Sacramento, the Clippers, Minnesota, and Washington – have had more than one run on the five-year treadmill. 

Meanwhile six franchises – the LA Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons, and Miami Heat – have never gone more than three seasons in the lottery.

What do these six franchises have in common?  Typically people think success in the NBA requires that a team be in a large market and/or have large payrolls.   Although the Lakers fit this description, the Spurs, Jazz, and Pistons are hardly large market teams with big payrolls. 

If location and money aren’t the answer, what’s the key? Let’s briefly talk about the Spurs in 2011-12.  The players who produced the most for this team included Kawhi Leonard (non-lottery first round pick in 2011), Danny Green (2nd round pick in 2009), Tony Parker (late first round pick in 2001), Manu Ginobili (late 2nd round pick in 1999), Tim Duncan (first overall pick in 1997), Tiago Splitter (late first round pick in 2007), and Matt Bonner (second round pick in 2003).

Yes, Duncan was a lottery pick.  But he is no longer the player he once was.  The Spurs are now led by players who were not taken in the lottery.  And three of the Spurs six most productive players were second round picks. 

The success of the Spurs suggests the key to building a winning team in the NBA.  It really is quite simple.  Acquire – and keep – productive players.  These productive players can be found in the lottery.  And they can be found elsewhere in the draft.  Teams can also acquire productive players in the free agent market and via trade. 

However one does it, acquiring — and keeping — productive players is key. 

Unfortunately, the Bobcats current strategy required the team to let its productive players win games for other teams.  So now fans of the Bobcats get to watch this team run on the lottery treadmill.  And as the above table indicates, this can be a very, very, very long run.

That run can be somewhat shorter if a team gets lucky. Certainly the Bobcats hoped to secure the number one pick in the 2012 draft and the rights to Anthony Davis.  But the NBA’s lottery system only gave the Bobcats a 25 percent chance of getting this pick.  In other words, the short-cut the Bobcats hoped for would require a good deal of luck. 

In sum, here is apparently the Bobcats strategy: Give up productive players for the hope that you will get lucky and be given an even more productive player. 

Hoping to get lucky may be a good plan if you are in a bar on a Friday night.  But it is hardly a credible plan for a business organization. 

Unfortunately, fans of teams on the lottery treadmill seem to have little else to pin their hopes upon.   And when luck doesn’t happen, the run on the treadmill – which the powers-that-be in Charlotte seem to love – just continues.

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  1. Jonathan says:

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    • Senator J.C. Calhoun says:

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      • drewski says:

        Whilst it may be true that Wallace won’t be producing wins in 3 years time, given that his contract expires either this summer or the next, depending on if he exercises his option or not, there’s no reason the Bobcats would be paying him not to produce wins in 3 years time.

        And although I agree that there are flaws to this analysis, the central point is perfectly accurate – the Bobcats traded good players for bad ones so they could make their team bad in the hope they would be able to draft a star to build around. Given the lottery process is a gamble, both in which pick you get and in how good that pick turns out to be, it’s not unreasonable to criticise this approach as being an ineffective way to consistently build winning teams.

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    • TheScribbler says:

      Wow! …and here I was thinking that I had lost my ability to comprehend the written word. There is elegant prose and there is effective prose, this is neither. Seems someone should take a remedial journalism course.

      You would think with their (‘Cats) atrocious record, they could garner something decent out of the draft and keep our boy “Mikey” (yes we still like Mike) out of the NBA casino.

      Have the ‘Cats become the Cubs of the NBA? Lov’em win or lose?!?!

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  2. Patrick says:

    How do the OKC Thunder fit into this? They don’t have a large market or large payroll. Three (Durant, Westbrook, Harden) of their best players were lottery picks in the past five years and now they are one win away from the NBA finals.

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  3. Dan says:

    If a team has a reputation as a winner, it will attract top players in a virtuous cycle. Because of the nature of basketball, top players are orders of magnitude more valuable than the merely very good.

    If a team goes through a rebuilding phase on purpose they could end up killing their brand, not only for the fans but more importantly, for potential players.

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  4. RJ says:

    Michael Jordan’s gambling addiction surprised you?

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  5. Brett says:

    OKC was the Anti-Charlotte; they DID get lucky. They drafted Durant SECOND; like everyone else, they would have taken Greg Oden first. They wasted a #5 pick on Jeff Green, a terrible player, and were lucky enough to trade him and the horrible Nenad Krystic for the not-quite-so-terrible Kendrick Perkins. Two of their best players, Ibaka and Sefolosha, cost only late 1st-rounders; their weak link, the hot-and-cold Russell Westbrook, was taken after Kevin Love, or they might be even better.
    If ‘suck now, get good high draft picks, win later’ only works once in ten tries–or a thousand, or a million–OKC is the one; you can’t name another. (And don’t say the Spurs, and Tim Duncan; they already had David Robinson, whose injury gave them the chance to draft Duncan–and they STILL had to overcome the lottery odds.)

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    • Brendan says:

      While I agree that drafting Durant was a stroke of good fortune, making good trades (Green/Perkins), acquiring multiple first-round picks (Ibaka), and developing players to fit cohesively isn’t “luck” , its good management (also, note that OKC likely lost the sefolosha trade, as it cost them Taj Gibson).

      Chicago is doing pretty well with the “suck, draft, win” strategy. Boston’s draft picks gave them the opportunity to trade for Garnett (as well as a little wink wink, nudge nudge). Utah rather seamlessly went from lottery back to respectability after trading their best player.

      OKC stands out because they GUTTED their roster, which few other teams have done (Boston/ Utah kept Pierce/productive vets) and added pieces around them.

      Also, lets see how teams like Cleveland turn out before we blast the lottery as a method of acquiring the requisite star.

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  6. jeffrey says:

    I think the problem is that charlotte is viewed as a small market-boring- flyover city. Superstars dont want to play there. Look at when the hornets drafted Kobe, and he, in so many words, proclaimed that he would not be playing in charlotte. Potential superstars want to play in cities where they will be celebrated, not gawked at and stalked. When Julius peppers left the panthers a few years ago, he told a chicago newspaper that he was creeped out in charlotte because people would “post up” outside of his house to get a glimpse of him. I know that seattle is still looking to get a team back, i think the bobcats could be the new supersonics!

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  7. cal54 says:

    Uhhg, these people don’t understand basketball at all. Teams get on the lottery treadmill because:

    1. Their team was in a depleted state where they had few legitimate players. See: Post Jordan Bulls.
    2. They proceed to make mistakes in drafting.
    3. They overpay underperforming players.

    Sure acquiring players is good, but the best place to do that is the draft, because free agency is monetarily inefficient except in the rare case like Lebron James to Miami, or Shaq to LA.

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  8. Moe says:

    The described lottery treadmill is horse manure. Remember Magic and their back to back first picks? Shaq and then the following year with Penny Hardaway? They only went to, I don’t know… the NBA finals?

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    • drewski says:

      So…Orlando once and OKC once are the only examples of the lottery treadmill paying off in the last, what, 21 years of the NBA? Clearly it’s a highly efficient talent acquisition strategy – works once a decade!

      Good news, Bobcats fans – you only have to suck until 2023 before you’ll “win” the lottery treadmill and make the Finals.

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